November 16, 2018

Heaven is a library (The National Library of Israel)

On my most recent visit to Jerusalem this past June, I spent a few hours in heaven: touring the collections of the National Library of Israel and previewing plans for its new state-of-the-art building to be built on a beautiful site near the Knesset, the Supreme Court and the Israel Museum.

Reimagining the library for the 21st Century and beyond — the new building should be completed by 2019 and in full use by 2020 — has been a herculean task, involving decades of committees, legal restructuring, legislation, and a unique partnership of public and private funds. With roots that go back to the 19th century, the library has set great goals for itself, aspiring to be, as its website declares “the prime institution of national memory — not only of the Israeli nation, but also of the Jewish people throughout the world.”

To give some idea of the importance of the collection, I was shown a narrow volume with two columns of Hebrew on each page that is the oldest and sole extant copy of a printed Haggadah from 1480, Guadalajara, Spain (the library has earlier handwritten Haggadot). No illustrations, no songs (and no Maxwell House coffee ad), but the Ma Nishtana is there plain to see. Only some 30 years after Gutenberg began printing, and some 12 years before the expulsion from Spain, the experts at the National Library believe that originally 100-140 copies of this Haggadah were printed. Today there is just one.

If that were not mind-blowing enough, I was also shown a blue workbook, in appearance like college final exam blue books. However, this notebook was the one in which Franz Kafka practiced his Hebrew lessons. That is amazing enough, but all the more so if you are familiar with Kafka’s life, his complicated relationship to Judaism, Pre-Israel Palestine, and the crush he had on his Hebrew teacher (a young woman from Palestine). The philologists at the National Library determined that based on the Hebrew words and phrases that Kafka used in the notebook, his knowledge of Hebrew was sophisticated.

These are but two of the treasures of the collection of the National Library which includes more than 5 million items, among them the archives of leading Jewish and Israeli figures including S.Y. Agnon, Martin Buber and Gershon Scholem, 35,000 rare books, 10,000 Hebrew manuscripts and 74,000 rolls of microfilmed manuscripts (comprising 90 percent of all known Hebrew manuscripts including 200,000 segments from the Cairo Genizah and the Ginsberg collection from the Lenin Library among others); the Islam and Middle East collection which includes 2400 manuscripts in Arabic script and more than 100 manuscripts of the Koran dating back to the 9th Century; a collection of rare and ancient maps dating back to the 15th Century; and 30,000 hours of recorded song related to Jewish traditions in communities all over the world and in the land of Israel.

The new National Library will be housed in a gleaming state of the art building designed by Swiss architectural firm Herzog de Meuron. The design, simulations of which can be seen on the National Library website (web.nli.org.il), is a modernist wedge atop a glass core, in which the library’s vast holdings can be seen. It also features indoor and outdoor community spaces for cultural events — in fact, the entire end of the wedge is a giant screen that can be used for public screenings and performances held on the lawn outside.

There will be a central reading room with a giant oval skylight, which speaks to both the serious scholarship and openness the library hopes to foster. For the library’s invaluable collections, there will be a secure, climate-controlled underground storehouse.

Finally, for those who can’t visit the library in person, there will be multi-language access to the library’s digitized collections as well as related collections held in institutions all over the world.

The Library dates back to 1892, when The B’nai Brith Lodge in Jerusalem established the Midrash Abarbanel Library as the first free public library to serve the Jewish community in Pre-Israel Palestine. The seventh Zionist Congress in Basel in 1905, decided to create a National Library of the Jewish people with the Midrash Abarbanel Library as its foundation which, in turn became the basis, when the Hebrew University was founded in 1925, for its National and University Library, under the direction of Shmuel Hugo Berman, and with Gerson Scholem, as librarian and later head of the department of Hebrew and Judaica. In 1948, during the War of Independence, the library was moved from Mt. Scopus, taking up residence in several West Jerusalem locations before settling at the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus where it has remained until today.

Between 1994 and 2010, there were a number of critical developments in the library’s growth and development: an international panel of experts from the Weizmann Institute, The German National Library, the Oxford Bodleian Libraries and the U.S. Library of Congress, concluded that “the library must be reborn” (1994-1996). In order the untangle the various stakeholders in the library (The Hebrew University, the Zionist Federation, the State of Israel) and create an independent entity which could raise the funds and manage the process of the Library’s reinvention and renewal an Israeli group recommended changing the status of the library (2002-2004), established a public committee (2005), proposed “The National Library Law” which was passed (2007), entered into an agreement with the Hebrew University (2008), and formulated a master plan for Library renewal (2008-2010). The Hebrew University loaned its collections and the Israel government granted the land near the Knesset and the Supreme Court, for the site of the new Library.

Finally, in 2010, Yad Hanadiv, the Rothschild family foundation operating in Israel, committed to providing the main funding for construction of the new building as well for the library’s technology. In Yad Hanadiv, the project found its ideal partner. Yad Hanadiv, which built both the Knesset building as well as the Supreme Court building, has a proven track record and immense credibility as one of the oldest and largest private charities in Israel.

It is worth stating that the National Library is a fitting complement to the Knesset and Supreme Court, for how else best to represent what Israel means —what is Israel is – than as a democracy (The Knesset), a nation who observes the rule of law (The Supreme Court), and home to the people of the book (The National Library).

Further, Yad Hanadiv Chairman Lord Jacob Rothschild is not known as someone who simply writes a check – he gets actively involved and sees a project to completion. Lord Rothschild has his own enviable track record as regards restoration and renewal of architectural properties, including the restoration of Someset House and Spencer House in London, as well as Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, England. Not only has each been exquisitely restored but they have also become highly popular visitor destinations.

Finally, Ariel Weiss, Yad Hanadiv’s executive director, who I had the opportunity to meet with in Jerusalem, is particularly well-suited to the task of working with the various stakeholders and interests to achieve consensus, as well as to shepherd the complex tasks of determining the appropriate technology and how to deploy it to achieve the greatest possible access in the most appropriate manner. Many years ago, in another lifetime, when he was known as Ari Weiss and worked as the senior staff member and right hand man to Tip O’Neill, the former Speaker of the House and legendary Democratic politician, the New York Times called Weiss, “one of the most influential, albeit unknown, men on Capitol Hill.”

O’Neill famously said, “All Politics is local” but discussing the National Library project with Weiss, I got the feeling that one might say that “all successful projects involve politics.” Weiss’ deep respect for and engagement with process, his experience in crafting strategy, marshalling support and seeing legislation to adoption, his willingness to wade in to complex and complicated processes, are all much-valued talents at play in successfully steering the National Library project to its 2017 completion. Weiss remains humble and modest, but his importance to the project’s success should not be underestimated. Which is what makes Yad Hanadiv such a formidable and credible lead partner for building The National Library.

The National Library’s projected opening in 2019 is a milestone but is in no way the end of the endeavor. To meet its ambitious goals of being both a center for scholarship and a cultural hub and making the treasures of the collection better known and more accessible, The National Library will need to increase its supporters, and engage all possible stakeholders to create a sustainable enterprise.

The notion of a National Library of the Jewish People is an idea that only a century ago seemed quixotic. Yet over the last century, The National Library has become the central repository of Jewish Culture and Civilization, the land of Israel and the State of Israel, in all its richness, diversity and complexity. That the National Library, re-imagined and reconceived to share the treasures of our global cultural heritage for generations to come, will be housed in a building befitting its new purpose, at a site commensurate with its stature, only affirms what Theodore Herzl once said about the future Jewish State, “It is no dream.”